Friday's child

5th March 1999 at 00:00
Reva Klein on what it's like to be . . . a perfectionist

All the other kids in his Year 9 class swear they couldn't care less about them. But for Lawrence, the prospect of national assessment tests looms as large as if he were approaching a stage debut without knowing his lines.

The odd thing is, he knows his lines, or at least his maths, English and science. He's in top sets, he's an active participant in class and his homework is consistently good. But sitting exams - that's something else.

As the youngest of three, he has seen what exams can do to people. He's watched his sisters put themselves into self- imposed purdah for months on end in the run-up to GCSEs and A-levels. He has heard the slammed doors and stomping feet of bad temper and the very walls of the house resounding with the sobs of anxious exhaustion for what has seemed like years. That both sisters came out of it not only alive but with flying colours to the joyful plaudits of their parents, and are now at university is neither here nor there for their brother. When you're 14, you focus on the bad, dramatic stuff.

Of course he's taken assessment and other tests before and he's done well. There were lots of butterflies fluttering in his belly, but this time it's different. And although Lawrence doesn't know it, that difference is in some part down to the gallons of hormones coursing through his body, resulting in everything looking a lot worse, a lot scarier, a lot more like life and death.

Every day is a countdown to the evil date, every mention of the month of May a trigger for nausea and headaches. He can't see beyond it, can't believe that he'll live through it.

Lawrence is a perfectionist, a card-carrying member of a generic group renowned for not giving themselves much of a break. He's hard on himself and that's a trait which doesn't sit well with the other boys in his class who are, if anything, a bit soft on themselves. While they shrug off homework for the next day as something hastily dealt with at the breakfast table, Lawrence does it when he gets home from school. And now, while the others swagger around as if even thinking about assessment tests were compromising their manhood, Lawrence quietly gets on with fretting, fretting and more fretting.

You don't need great insight to see that his sisters are a hard act to follow. How would his parents react to him failing and having to take some course for thickoes at the local further education college?

The worst thing is that Law-rence can't talk about this to anyone. Because it's socially unacceptable to be worried about schoolwork, let alone to be near phobic about exams, he's keeping it to himself and in the process, feeling more and more alienated from his friends.

He can't talk about it to his parents, either, because he doesn't want them to think that he's not set to scale the dizzying heights last visited by his sisters. And his impassive veneer means his teachers don't suspect that he's troubled by anything.

Unless someone picks up on his withdrawn behaviour, he'll carry on suffering in silence, probably doing worse in his exams than if he had been able to talk things through. And it could set in train a downward spiral in self-esteem. All he needs is one observant eye in the midst of the hustle and bustle that is school.

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